The End of the Golden Era of Chess

The recent passing of Pal Benko and Shelby Lyman draws the curtain on an American period that produced some of the game’s most sparkling play.

Paul Keres of the Soviet Union (left) is seen in play against Bobby Fischer of the U.S. in Bled, Slovenia, in 1959. Pal Benko of the U.S., arms folded, looks on. (Associated Press)

Outside the cloistered world that serious chess players inhabit, few would have taken any special note of the death last month of Pal Benko, at age 91. Benko was a top grand master and one of the game’s great artists. After defecting from his native Hungary in 1957, he moved to the United States, competing in tournaments and composing ingenious puzzles that introduced generations of young players to the mysteries of the endgame.

But his singular contribution to American chess wasn’t at the board. Without Benko, there might not have been Bobby Fischer—at least not the Fischer who delivered the U.S. perhaps its greatest cultural victory of the Cold War. His competitive career fading, Benko stepped aside in 1970 and let the younger, more talented Fischer take his place in the competition to determine a challenger for the reigning world champion, Boris Spassky of the Soviet Union. Fischer, who had been playing sporadically throughout the 1960s and who seemed on the brink of quitting the game altogether, tore through the qualifying tournaments before dethroning Spassky in a 1972 match that riveted America.

Benko and Fischer hadn’t always been on the best of terms. Playing in a tournament in 1962 in the Caribbean, they squabbled one night and got into a fistfight—“the first fistfight ever recorded by two grandmasters,” Frank Brady wrote in his Fischer biography, Endgame. But they reconciled and stayed friends to the end. “Pal felt that Bobby could change the chess world—which Bobby did—and if Bobby became world champion, that would benefit the whole game,” Susan Polgar, a friend of both men and a former women’s world chess champion, told me. “His own personal interest was secondary to the bigger picture.”

Another chess master who was central to the Fischer story also died last month: Shelby Lyman. Though not a world-class player, Lyman did more to popularize chess in America than anyone not named Bobby Fischer. He was teaching chess in New York when one of his students, a TV executive, tapped him to host a PBS show covering the Fischer-Spassky match. Lyman proved a natural showman, explaining densely complicated chess positions to TV viewers, many of whom thought of a fork only as an eating utensil. (In chess, it’s a move where a single piece makes at least two simultaneous attacks.) Like tons of other kids at the time, I’d turn to Channel 13 in New York that summer and follow Lyman’s commentary move by move, sparking a lifelong interest in the game. After becoming a journalist, I wrote about Lyman, and from time to time we’d talk about the match.

“I had no concept of TV,” he told me. “I never watched television. I had no idea how a talk show host should act.” But, he added, “chess is a dramatic event. You could hear the swords clang on the shields with every move. They went at each other. The average person is turned onto chess when it’s presented right. Trying to figure out the next move is a fascinating adventure—an adventure people can get into.”

With his bushy brown hair and endearing miscues (in that low-tech era, he’d fumble for the pieces he used to shove onto demonstration boards), Lyman became a mini-celebrity, while interest in the ancient game boomed. In the year before the match, membership in the U.S. Chess Federation was about 27,000. A year after Fischer won the title, it had more than doubled, to about 59,000. “Shelby was the face of chess in America,” Bruce Pandolfini, the coach and author who was played by the actor Ben Kingsley in the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer, told me.

The loss of Benko and Lyman draws the curtain on an era in American chess that produced some of the game’s richest personalities and most sparkling play. The players and teachers who dominated the firmament in the mid-20th century were the game’s greatest generation. They bested a Soviet pipeline of grand masters who once had a stranglehold on the title.

One by one, they’re dying out. Fischer is gone, having died in Iceland in 2008, at age 64. Bill Lombardy, who served as Fischer’s second during the 1972 match and was a world-class grand master in his own right, died two years ago, at 79. Larry Evans, who helped Fischer write the influential chess book My 60 Memorable Games, passed away in 2010, at age 78. Robert Byrne, who in 1963 lost to Fischer in one of the most artful chess games ever played and later wrote a chess column for The New York Times, died six years ago, at 84.

There may never be another generation like it, or a set of geopolitical circumstances that would make a chess match quite so absorbing. “He was a supernova,” Hikaru Nakamura, a 31-year-old American who has ranked among the world’s top five players, told me of Fischer. “It’s something that will never happen again.” No other American has won the world title since Fischer forfeited his in 1975. No chess personality has broken through to a mass audience like Lyman. No nation seems to stoke America’s competitive fires quite like the old Soviet Union. “What the women’s national soccer team has done in the last few years is what these chess players did during the Cold War in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s,” Joseph Ponterotto, a counseling-psychology professor at Fordham University Graduate School of Education and the author of A Psychobiography of Bobby Fischer, told me. “There was new blood. We were standing on the world stage, and Russia was not going to dominate. Benko was part of that team that led to Bobby Fischer taking down the Russian chess empire.”

Thrilling though the dramatis personae may have been, the protagonist came to a sad end. After winning the title, Fischer became a recluse, descending deeper into paranoid, anti-Semitic behavior that had long been evident but became more pronounced as he aged. (Fischer himself was Jewish, born out of wedlock to Regina Fischer—a nurse, doctor, and left-wing activist—and a Hungarian physicist named Paul Nemenyi. The family had kept his parentage a secret for decades. Through FBI files, court records, and interviews, my wife, Clea Benson, and I pieced together that Fischer’s biological father was Nemenyi, not the German biophysicist Gerhardt Fischer, as was widely assumed.)

Fischer was indicted by the U.S. in 1992 for playing an exhibition match with Spassky in Yugoslavia, in violation of economic sanctions. Eluding authorities, he shuttled between Hungary, Japan, and other countries until he was ultimately granted citizenship—and refuge—in Iceland in 2005. He chased away friends and alienated admirers. Pandolfini told me of a phone call he got from Fischer in the mid-1980s after the coach had published a book called Bobby Fischer’s Outrageous Chess Moves. The book celebrated Fischer’s incandescent play, but the subject didn’t see it that way. Fischer thought the word outrageous was an insult. “He was incensed with me,” Pandolfini told me. “He said, ‘Outrageous, isn’t that a critical word?’” Pandolfini assured him it was a high compliment.

Polgar told me she would dine with Fischer and Benko in Budapest in the 1990s. At one restaurant, Fischer pulled out his pocket chess set to discuss games, when he noticed that the paparazzi had shown up and were taking his picture. Let’s go, he told the group. They fled the restaurant and piled into Polgar’s Volkswagen Passat. Drive fast! Fischer exhorted her, covering the car windows with his large hands to thwart the photographers.

A dilemma in chess circles is how to reconcile Fischer’s magnificent play with his abhorrent beliefs. It comes down to this: Can you relish the moves even if you despise the man? Was the 13-year-old Fischer’s brilliant queen sacrifice in what was dubbed the “Game of the Century” diminished by his later screeds about Jews? Polgar, who is Jewish, recalls how she dealt with his odious obsessions. “I told him I disagreed with his views and he should reconsider,” she told me. “At some point, we stopped talking about that topic. He knew I wasn’t going to change my mind. I wasn’t going to change his mind. So we agreed to talk about chess.”

Lyman and I had discussed Fischer’s mental state, too, before Fischer’s death. I’d asked him what he thought about Fischer’s rants. “Maybe he’s a monster; I don’t think he is,” Lyman said at the time. “It’s possible he’s become a raving lunatic; I doubt it. I think he’s a person with a circumscribed problem that’s getting bigger. The main point is, this is detracting from his greatness. When he was at the board playing, it was like God playing. The purity of his thought, the search for truth, the ability to calculate and go to the core of a problem: Bobby never looked for an easy move that would blow away his opponent. He looked for the truth in chess.”

Lyman’s focus on Fischer’s play, rather than his neuroses, isn’t all that uncommon. To this day, Fischer remains the benchmark by which other grand masters are judged. When prodigies play a brilliant game, they’re compared to Fischer. Perhaps ironically, the current crop of grand masters has in many ways surpassed the achievements seen in the Fischer era. Two top U.S. players, Nakamura and Fabiano Caruana, both eclipsed Fischer’s peak rating—a measure of how players perform against the opposition. Caruana challenged the reigning champion, Magnus Carlsen of Norway, in a title match last year but was narrowly defeated. Since Fischer’s day, the center of gravity has migrated from New York to St. Louis, where a wealthy retired financier, Rex Sinquefield, founded a chess club that showcases the world’s best players. Each year, the club hosts an elite tournament for top grand masters. In the event that ended last month, as many as 25,000 people watched the games live on the club’s YouTube channel, the club’s executive director, Tony Rich, told me—an audience topping the live attendance at many Major League Baseball games.

Yet, there are unmistakable signs that, at the highest levels, chess’s freshness and creativity seem to be withering. Computers have changed the game forever. Players enlist powerful programs as they search for opening novelties and new strategies. Computers have taught them resources that make it possible to salvage what were once thought to be losing positions. Many top games end in bloodless draws. A draw, an opponent once told me after our game ended with no winner or loser, is about as exciting as “kissing your sister.”

“No matter how badly you play, unless you make a flat-out blunder, there’s always going to be some narrow path to being able to save the game and draw instead of losing,” Nakamura told me. One consequence of this shift has been a certain parity at the top ranks. The Carlsen-Caruana world-championship match featured 12-straight draws before Carlsen finally prevailed in a tie-break. Compare that to Fischer’s day, when he reeled off 20 straight wins during his march to the world title. Players today may go 15, 20 moves or more into the game before they’re thinking on their own, relying instead on computer-driven preparation. “Everyone is using the same programs, everyone is looking at the same opening ideas,” Nakamura said. “I wouldn’t say everyone is necessarily the same in terms of talent or ability, but when you’re able to prepare games that go so deep that you don’t have to think, really, it balances out the field.

“Definitely, some of the artistry and poetry has been lost in modern chess. It’s very rare that I play a game where I’m like, Wow, this is really interesting. There were so many possibilities! It was such a rich game. When I was younger, I would look at a game with computers and still be fascinated by the possibilities. Now it almost never happens.”

Rich, of the St. Louis Chess Club, told me: “I’m torn on this.” He noted that in the tournament that ended last month, there was indeed a higher percentage of drawn games than usual. Even so, he said, that doesn’t necessarily make the contests any less exciting. “Positions where players maybe would have lost in past years—through the help of computers, and the players’ seconds, and training regimens—they’ve been able to find ways to defend these kinds of things. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the game was boring. Quite the opposite. Some of the most exciting games have ended in draws, either because of a miracle escape or because the fireworks and tactics maybe fizzled out into a draw.”

When I spoke with Nakamura, he had just finished competing in the St. Louis tournament, called the Sinquefield Cup. He told me that he had heard about Benko’s death on the morning of one of the final rounds and wanted to pay tribute. Benko is the author of an eponymous opening line for the black pieces. The idea is to surrender a pawn in exchange for active play on the queen side of the board. Nakamura hadn’t prepared, but in honor of the fallen grand master, he decided he would take a risk and play the Benko Gambit anyway. The hell with it, he thought to himself. Why not? I’m just going to have some fun.

He didn’t get a chance. His opponent, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave of France, would have needed to open the game by pushing his queen pawn forward two squares. But that’s not Vachier-Lagrave’s preference. With the white pieces, the French player opened by pushing his king pawn two squares—and so Nakamura didn’t get to play the opening that Benko had pioneered. “It takes two to tango,” Polgar told me, when I described to her what had happened. The game ended in a draw.